Whether the current criminalization emphasis is supported or not, the fact remains that more than 2 million people are in prison or jail at any given time in the United States. This has brought an incarceration rate that is far beyond most nations in the world today.
In the African-American community, 2,306 out of every 100,000 people is spending time in jail or prison at some point in their lives.
What makes the American prison population so unique is that it is completely out of context with the actual population demographics.
- Caucasians make up 39% of the US prison population, but they make up about 64% of the total US general population.
- African-Americans make up 40% of the US prison population, but just 13% of the general population.
- Hispanics make up 19% of the US prison population, which is just 3 percentage points higher than their general population demographics.
- African-Americans in the United States are 5x more likely to be incarcerated at some point in their lives when compared to their Caucasian counterparts.
- Hispanics are 2x more likely to be incarcerated than Caucasians and 2x less likely to be incarcerated when compared to African-Americans.
- Nearly 50% of all black males and 38% of white men will be arrested by the age of 23.
- African-American youth commit 6x more murders, 3x more rapes, 10x more robberies, and 3x more assaults than did their white counterparts.
- The number of Americans in state and federal prisons has quintupled since 1980.
- The US now locks up its citizens at a rate 5-8x that of the industrialized nations to which they are most similar.
- Changes in crime explained only 12% of the American prison rise, while changes in sentencing policy accounted for 88% of the increase.
There is no denying that part of the reason why the prison demographics are skewed racially is because African-Americans are statistically committing more crime. What is not often said is that crime also typically happens more often households are at or below the poverty line. As improvements have been made to create more equality through anti-discrimination laws and outreach efforts, there has been a very dramatic drop in the African-American representation in the prison population. In urban areas in 1967, blacks were 17x more likely than whites to be arrested for robbery. In 1980, African-Americans were more than 50% of the prison population.
Does Poverty Lock People Into Prison?
- Americans make up 5% of the total global population, but American prisoners make up 20% of the total prison population.
- Two-thirds detained in jails report annual incomes under $12,000 prior to arrest.
- States like California now spend more on locking people up than on funding higher education.
- In 1980, just 10% of African-American high-school dropouts were incarcerated. By 2008, that number was 37%.
- 1 in 4 adults in the US have a criminal record that may show up in a routine background check report and those with a record are much less likely to gain employment.
- Fewer than 30% of African-American male high school dropouts are currently employed.
- After being out of prison for 20 years, less than one-quarter of ex-cons who haven’t finished high school were able to rise above the bottom 20% of income earners.
- In 2009, the American prison population declined for the first time since 1972.
- A year after release, 60% of formerly incarcerated people remain unemployed.
- Certain types of criminal convictions completely bar families from receiving cash assistance, food stamps, and housing assistance.
- The US economy more than doubled in the three decades prior to the Great Recession, but the poverty rate remained largely unchanged.
- One researcher calculates that 75% of black males in Washington, D.C. can expect to go to prison or jail during his lifetime.
The problem isn’t just with the current prison demographics. It is also with the children of those who are in prison. Even when a convict is able to turn their lives around, become “rehabilitated,” and do right by their family, they’ll still likely be in the lowest 20% of income earners. This means their children will still be affected by poverty. The prison cycle repeats itself time and time again. Until we are able to break that cycle, we will not be able to change the demographics of the prison population whatsoever.
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